Squats are arguably one of the most effective exercises for building strength, improving body composition, and enhancing athletic performance. Squatting is also a fundamental movement in daily life that you need to be able to perform correctly.
When it comes to squatting, or any exercise that makes you better, stronger, and faster, variety is necessary to promote adaptations, challenge the soul, and prevent injuries. The cool thing about squats is that there are dozens of variations, making some form appropriate for every population from elderly person to athlete.
This article will give you ten of the best squat variations in no particular order.
#1: Split Squat
Split squats are the ideal place to start because they allow you to master a simpler movement than the regular two-legged bilateral squat. Split squats overcome common muscle imbalances between the right and left sides of the body. They also promote flexibility in the ankle and hip joints.
Another reason to do split squats is to ensure healthy knee function. Split squats promote balance between the muscles within the quadriceps that stabilize the patella when you extend the knee. Research shows strong and balanced quadriceps muscles can help improve movement patterns, which will allow you to prevent knee injuries and ACL tears.
#2: Overhead Squat
A surprisingly challenging exercise that forces the body to use a large number of stabilizing muscles, the overhead squat serves as both a great warm-up, moving the body through a large range-of-motion and dynamically stretching the prime movers in the lower body and core. Instead of warming up with 5 or 10 minutes on the treadmill, simply do a few sets of five reps of overhead squats with just the empty bar. Then move on to your workout.
#3: Back Squat
Back squats optimally train the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and lower back. They have been extensively studied for their safety and efficacy due to the misconception that they are bad for the knees or back.
Recent research supports what experienced coaches have known for a long time: That full-range squats are safe when progressed properly and using them as a primary exercise in your training will result in superior outcomes. Here are a few of the good things that can come from training full squats:
- Better muscle coordination and movement patterns.
- Maximal muscle development in the hamstrings and quads.
- Greater speed and jumping ability.
Other recent conclusions about the effect of squat depth show that full squats help develop connective tissue, cartilage, and ligament strength in the knee joint so that the leg can handle heavier forces.
#4: Front Squat
Front squats are one of your best tools for preventing injury and achieving new levels of athleticism:
- They train acceleration in the lower body and are highly relevant for improving jumping, speed, and lower body motor control.
- They target the lower back and ab muscles more than many typical “core” exercises. One study found that compared to a plank and a superman on a Swiss ball, front squats with an empty barbell required greater activation of the spinal erector muscles as well as significant rectus abdominis activity. Training with weight would enhance this advantage tremendously.
- They are more effective for training the vastus lateralis and rectus femoris of the quads but place less stress on the knees than deep back squats.
#5: Eccentric-Enhanced Squats
The eccentric phase of a squat is the down motion and the concentric phase is the up motion. It’s important to focus on controlling the eccentric phase because many people are weak when moving eccentrically. This puts them at risk of injury and poor movement patterns, limiting their athletic potential.
The simplest way to train the eccentric motion of the squat is by controlling the down motion and taking a longer time to go into the squat than to come back up. An example is a 4-second down motion (called tempo), followed by a 1-second up motion. Novices should try a 6 to 8-second eccentric tempo with a 1-second concentric phase. If you are an advanced trainees, try heavy eccentrics in which you train a supramaximal load for the down motion by using eccentric hooks or a power rack.
#6: Heels Elevated Squat
You might have seen people squatting with weight plates under their heels and wondered why. Elevating the heels has a number of advantages. First, it’s common to have tightness through the ankle joint, which limits how deep you can squat and increases forward lean, placing greater stress on the lower back (which is the last thing you want to do when squatting).
Elevating the heels also increases recruitment of the vastus medialis of the quadriceps—a muscle that is essential for knee stability.
Squatting on a slanted board with the slant facing forward is the best way of elevating the heels, but putting 5 lb weight plates under the heels is a reasonable alternative if you don’t have a wedge board. You can train heel-elevated squats with dumbbells or a barbell—just remember to go all the way down until the hamstring covers the calf!
#7: One-and-a Quarter Squat
One-and-a-quarter squats are when you go all the way down, come up 20 to 30 degrees, pause for a second, descend back to the bottom, and come up quickly. This brutally hard variation inserts an isometric hold into the squat, which increases the muscular tension and leads to greater strength development. Using isometric pauses in the bottom quarter of the full squat also favorably recruits the vastus medialis of the quad.
#8: Hex Bar Jump Squat
Jump squats are an excellent tool for athletes and recreational trainees who want to improve explosiveness and reduce injury risk when moving at high speeds. One of the best ways to train jump squats is with a hex bar rather than a barbell because it will allow you to avoid the discomfort of having the barbell slam against your back on each jump.
Novices should start training hex bar squat jumps by rising up on the toes, dropping rapidly into a parallel squat, and repeating. This modified squat jump will teach you to perform a rapid eccentric contraction and brief transition phase. Progress to a jump squat in which you jump as high as possible, land in a quarter squat, and immediately rebound.
Start with the unloaded 45 lb hex bar, increasing the load to no more than 20 to 30 percent of the 1RM. Keep volume low when doing squat jumps—a warm up set of 12 to 15 reps in which you just go up on the toes followed by two to three sets of 8 to 10 reps is enough.
#9: Bulgarian Split Squat
Elevating the back foot during a split squat is an advanced progression of the split squat because it works the quadriceps to a greater degree. It requires significant flexibility in the ankle and hip and is great for targeting the thigh muscles for strength and size.
It’s important to only elevate the back foot about 4 to 6 inches—an aerobic step or low box will work well. A regular weight bench is too high and will increase the risk of hyperextension of the lower back as you descend into the low squat.
#10: Partial Squat
We hammer home the need to do full-range squats for optimal function. But, this doesn’t mean that partials, in which you break down a squat into individual parts, are not an incredibly useful tool for advanced trainees who want to reach their athletic potential.
Often, lack of physical progress in the gym is about a sticking point. This is the part of a lift where you are weakest. For example, the sticking point in the deep squat or bench press is typically right around midpoint, although, the entire bottom segment (bottom to parallel in the squat) can give lifters trouble. Partial-range training will help.
When performing partial-range-of-motion training, always incorporate full-range-of-motion sets within the workout to promote optimal length-tension relationships within the muscles. Try devoting yourself to adding partial squats into your workout for a training cycle. Train a few sets of heavy quarter squats followed by a few sets of half squats. Finish with full-range squats to avoid diminished returns.